History Of Coffee – From Humble Beginnings To World Domination


The elixir of life for many, coffee has its humble beginning in Ethiopia. For many of us, the difference between a good day and a bad day is that morning cup of coffee. But how did a plant which originated in the mountainous hills of Kaffe (in Ethiopia) reach all parts of the world? 

The history of coffee is a long but interesting one. Feel free to skip around to see how coffee reached your part of the world. But I recommend giving the whole article a read, you will find all sorts of interesting ways in which coffee spread its’ wings. From dancing goats to smuggling beans in beards, this story has got it all!

Where (And How) Was Coffee Discovered?

The birthplace of coffee is Ethiopia, where the coffee plant grew wild in the rainforests of Kaffa for ages. Though caffeine itself has been consumed by humans in some form for millennia, the coffee drink was not discovered until a few centuries back. So, how did the first ever cup of coffee come into existence?

The First Cup Of Coffee?

One of the most popular legends of how coffee was discovered is attributed to Kaldi, an Ethiopian goat herder in around 850 CE. [1]

One day, Kaldi noticed his goats were unusually more active, bleating and dancing around hysterically. The goats were so energetic that they did not even sleep all night. When Kaldi decided to investigate, he found that the goats were chewing on some red berries from a nearby shrub. Kaldi’s curiosity was piqued and he decided to try out the berries for himself.

Soon enough, Kaldi experienced that same rush of energy and joined in the dance with his goats. His wife, who termed the berries as “heaven sent”, advised Kaldi to share the berries with monks from the local monastery.

The monk however strongly disapproved of the fruit, calling it a work of the devil. He dumped it away into the fire. This resulted in a strong aroma that interested the monk and others nearby. They then removed the beans (that had been roasted) from the fire and put them in hot water. The first ever cup of coffee was hence discovered!

The Oromo People

Settlement of The Oromo People

Given that the story of Kaldi was not in writing till several hundred years later, it is probably more myth than reality. In fact, there are many other legends similar to that of Kaldi. We don’t know how exactly coffee was discovered in Ethiopia. What we do now is where coffee went next, and how that occurred.

It is quite likely that the world’s first to cultivate and consume coffee are the Oromo people. They crushed up the coffee beans and made it into a thick paste with fat. It was then rolled into energy bars. 

Enter The Islamic World

Coffee entered the Middle East through the red sea thanks to Oromo slaves. It first arrived in the port city known as “Mocha”, which is present-day Yemen. In case you are wondering, yes this is where the name of the popular coffee drink comes from.

The Middle East is where the first ever coffee drink was likely made. Initially, Sufi mystics in Yemen made a drink from coffee beans to help them concentrate and keep them awake during prayers. They named it “Qahwa”, which originally meant wine. This is also the birthplace of the most popular coffee bean, Arabica coffee.

Soon enough, coffee shot to popularity amongst most Middle East countries. Several public coffee houses known as “qahveh khaneh” opened up all across the Arabian Peninsula. These cafés quickly blew up in Islamic society as an alternative for Muslims who could not go to the pub. Cafés were not only an avenue for entertainment, but it also became a hub where Muslim men could engage in conversations about politics and current affairs. In fact, it became so important that these coffee houses or cafés were nicknamed ‘Schools of the Wise’.

Rulers across the Middle East did not like that people were getting more informed politically, which could potentially unite the opposition. Hence, in the 1500s and 1600s, coffee was banned in several places, including in Mecca and Egypt.

Regardless, people continued drinking coffee in secret until the bans were eventually reversed.

Spreading East Into Asia

Coffee’s entry into Asia is a rather peculiar one. While not popular for its coffee industry, coffee was first produced in Asia in India.

Coffee In India – Baba Budan & His Seven Beans

It all started in 1670 with a Muslim pilgrim – Baba Budan. During those times, any country which needed coffee beans had to purchase them from Yemen. The authorities were so strict that anyone caught smuggling fertile beans out of Yemen was often handed the death penalty. However, that did not deter Baba Budan, especially after he had tasted some delicious coffee at port Mocha.

While returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca, he successfully smuggled seven fertile coffee beans from Yemen to Mysore in India. Guess where he hid those seven beans? In his beard!

Upon his return, Baba Budan planted the seeds in the hills of Chikamagalur, Karnataka. This led to the coffee bloom in India, with huge coffee plantations being established in many South Indian states, existing even today.

Colonialism & Asia’s Coffee Connect

Much of Asia’s coffee history has a common factor – colonialism.

Coffee was introduced to Indonesia by the Dutch in the 17th century. After multiple failed attempts in cultivating coffee plants in their own country, the Dutch Governor of Java planted coffee seedlings in Java. Coffee from Java became so popular that the word “Java” started becoming synonymous with coffee.

Eventually, coffee cultivation in Indonesia made its way to multiple other states like Sumatra. Coffee made its way to other Asian countries like Myanmar and Vietnam in a similar fashion.

Marching On To Europe

Europe’s favorite beverage was beer, that is until coffee made its entry. In fact, beer was so prevalent that it was estimated that every individual in England consumed almost 1 liter of beer every single day up to the 17th century. This figure was closer to 1½ liters for the Germans!

The Devil’s Drink 

Coffee entered Europe in the 17th century when Italian and Venetian merchants began importing coffee. When coffee first came to Venice (in 1570), the new dark beverage was met with skepticism and fear by the locals. In fact, it was given the name “Devil’s Drink”, with the Catholic Pope being pressured to denounce the coffee. Due to the Islamic connection and the distinct effects coffee had on people who drank it, coffee was known as a “bitter invention of Satan”.

Since Pope Clement VIII refused to ban the drink without trying it himself, he was brought a cup of coffee. He was so impressed that (reportedly) he declared that “This devil’s drink is delicious. We should cheat the devil by baptizing it.” [2]

Upsurge Of Coffee In Europe

As a result of the Pope’s papal approval, coffee started rising in popularity throughout Europe. Shortly after, in the 1600s, there was a burst of coffee houses opening up all across Europe. These “schools of the wise” became places for social gatherings, with people participating in conversations regarding current affairs. In fact, coffee houses were nicknamed “penny universities”. For the price of a coffee, one could expand their knowledge by having intriguing social conversations with intelligent people.

Since the coffee houses provided a sober environment for constructive conversations, King Charles II tried to ban them in 1675. Of course, as we saw in the Middle East, any sort of ban on coffee had to be eventually reversed.

Coming as a surprise, these cafés were the starting point for many big businesses. These include the East India Company and London Stock Exchange. Even Lloyd’s of London, one of the largest insurance companies, started off as a mere coffee house in 1688!

Despite its rapid rise, not everyone loved coffee though. Women, who weren’t allowed in cafés, were fuming as their husbands were rarely at home after the advent of cafés. As a result, the Women’s Petition Against Coffee was started in 1694. In the petition, the women termed coffee “abominable” and “heathenish liquor”. Indeed, reading the petition today will surely tickle your funny bone!

Coffee & The French Revolution

Coffee came to France in the 17th century, when it was introduced to the French by a Turkish Ambassador. Even though the French were initially content with wine and had no interest in coffee, the Turkish ambassador won over Louis XIV with coffee. Soon enough, coffee spread through Paris like wildfire.

As we saw in the Middle East and England, France was soon overwhelmed with coffee houses. In fact, even the French revolution had its beginnings in a coffee house! On July 12, 1789, Camille Desmoulins delivered a rousing and passionate speech and pumped the crowd up. Two days later, the French broke into the Bastille, marking the start of the French Revolution.

The Last Stretch – Americas

Here comes the final few countries coffee has yet to reach.

Voyage To The Caribbean

In 1714, King Louis XIV of France received a seedling coffee plant as a gift from the mayor of Amsterdam. The seedling was then planted at the Royal Botanical Garden of Paris at the King’s request.

In 1720, Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a French Naval officer got a seedling from the King’s plant. He brought the seedling with him to the colony of Martinique (in the Caribbean), where he was stationed. 

As he left for the Caribbean, he faced several challenges to keep his coffee plant alive. Braving pirate attacks and storms, de Clieu even had to dehydrate himself to water the plant. However, the sacrifice paid off once the seedling was planted. The seedling flourished and became the reason for the development of over 18 million coffee trees in Martinique over the next 50 years. The fact that this seedling gave rise to all coffee trees in the Caribbean, South, and Central America is even more astounding.

Brazil – The King Of The Coffee World

Brazil accounts for about one-third of the world’s coffee supply. The man behind the beginning of the Brazilian coffee empire is officer Francisco de Mello Palheta. Francisco was dispatched to French Guiana to settle a land dispute. His main intent, however, was to smuggle coffee beans back to Brazil. 

Francisco seduced the French Governor’s wife to obtain some coffee beans after the Governor was unwilling to share. These seeds were indeed the seeds of the billion-dollar industry that Brazil rules today! Eventually, by 1852, Brazil became the world’s largest coffee producer and still holds the throne to this day.

America – Switching Allegiance To Coffee Over Tea

Every day, more than 450 million cups of coffee are consumed in the U.S. alone. But this wasn’t always the case. Tea was the most popular drink in the U.S. until the Boston Tea Party of 1773. The Boston Tea Party was a political protest against Britain for the English tax on tea. Making the switch from tea to coffee was seen as a matter of patriotism by many Americans. 

The Civil War also contributed to the rise of coffee, as soldiers started relying on caffeine for an extra boost of energy. The coffee bloom that started then has continued strong. The U.S. has been the top importer of coffee for several years now. 

Continual Dominance

Wow! That was one hell of a journey. From humble beginnings in Ethiopia to dominating many of our households even today. The history of coffee is as rich and astounding as its taste.

It is quite astounding how coffee grew from the Oroma people chewing on it for energy, to a 10.7 billion dollar industry today. Coffee is one of the most heavily traded commodities in the world, second only to oil. Today, different types of specialty coffee has sprung up, and coffee doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

Photo of author


Mellina is an avid coffee lover and is loves to brew the best possible coffee at home. She loves sharing anything which helps people perfect their next cup of coffee.